SHERIDAN — The firearm used in a triple homicide in Big Horn has not yet been found, and the Sheridan County Sheriff’s Office urges community members to call law enforcement without touching the weapon, should they locate it.
Sheridan County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Levi Dominguez said no one in Sheridan County law enforcement can recall encountering a case of this nature before. Montana law enforcement, the SCSO, Sheridan Police Department, Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation and Sheridan County Coroner’s Office are collaborating on the ongoing case that is expected to remain active for several weeks.
The prime suspect has been identified as Dana Beartusk, 54, who allegedly called a relative sometime the evening of March 29 and said he killed one or more people. The relative then called SCSO, and deputies were dispatched to the 100 block of Willow Street in Big Horn shortly after 8 p.m.
Further calls from Beartusk to the reporting party indicated Beartusk had left Big Horn and traveled through Sheridan toward Montana.
Sheridan County Deputy Coroner and media specialist Kaye Penno said blood alcohol level for each of the decedents will come back with toxicology, likely within two weeks. The cause and manner of death appears as stated by law enforcement, she said.
Three victims found inside the house appeared to have died from gunshot wounds. Autopsies have been completed but results will not be available for several weeks, while awaiting lab results.
The victims have been identified as relatives of Beartusk and Sheridan County residents: his wife, Angelina Beartusk, 51; sister Seana Fisher, 54; and nephew Mochdaveyano “Blackhawk” Fisher, 25.
Between the call from the reporting party and Dana Beartusk’s detention in Montana, SCSO attempted to identify the type of vehicle he was driving but was unsuccessful until around the time Montana law enforcement contacted Beartusk on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation near the intersection of Highway 314 and 212.
Beartusk declined to speak to law enforcement that evening when he was taken into custody. The SCSO filed three counts of first degree murder against the suspect and a warrant was granted for his arrest March 30.
SCSO believes a semi-automatic handgun was used in the homicide, though no weapons were found at the scene, in Beartusk’s possession or in his vehicle.
Sheridan County Prosecuting Attorney Dianna Bennett said the forensic aspect of the case is only beginning. In any homicide case, Bennett’s first step is gathering information from law enforcement and compiling a complete a picture of the facts.
“In cases where the victims do not have a voice and can’t give their version of what happened, we are left to learn what information we can from the forensic evidence and any witnesses,” Bennett said in an email to The Sheridan Press.
Bennett said homicide investigations are fast-moving and she generally has limited information about the case when it first comes to her office. Because of cross-jurisdictional cooperation, Bennett said she needed to file charges quickly to get the suspect back to Sheridan County jurisdiction.
An arraignment has not been scheduled as Beartusk has yet to be transported to Sheridan County.
As in a recent attempted murder case in Sheridan, in which charges were amended from first degree to second degree attempted murder, Bennett said charges in any case may be amended to address a weakness in the state’s case or for the purpose of potential plea negotiations.
According to Wyoming statute, to prove first degree murder, the state must prove premeditated malice or the homicide occurred while attempting to perpetrate a sex crime, robbery, escape, kidnapping, or sexual abuse of a minor.
The death penalty remains a potential punishment for those convicted of first degree murder in Wyoming despite recent challenges from lawmakers and nonprofits. A bill to repeal capital punishment failed introduction during the Legislative budget session in February.
Second degree murder does not bear the burden to the state to prove premeditation and carries 20 years to life imprisonment as potential punishment.
“Information is still coming in,” Bennett said. “At a later time, I will be in a better position to know if we should proceed under the current charges.”
Bennett said in nearly 23 years in Sheridan, she is not aware of a triple homicide ever having occurred. In previous single homicide cases, she has considered sentences of life imprisonment without parole to 20-30 or 50-60 year sentences with the possibility of parole, depending on the wishes of the victims’ families, strength of the case, defendant’s criminal history and “aggravated nature of the crime.” Each plays into the decision to arrange a plea agreement or proceed to trial.
Bennett said with three victims, the aggravated nature of the crime is extreme and she believes the responsible party should be held accountable for each life lost.
“There is a lot we don’t yet know in this investigation and investigators and laboratories are working hard to get to us more evidence and a better idea of what happened,” she said.